Last month, sitting in a circle with a group of women for Rogue Wood's Urban Circle workshop, we each took turns sharing things that made us feel guilty, anxious, and angry. The challenge to us was that we couldn't speak during or after someone else's turn. You let them share until they were out of words, then the person to the left would share. It was challenging, especially because as women we are groomed to comfort. We feel like we have to make it better. Instead, we held space for each other. We cried and laughed and fumed with one another. It was a really transformational experience, but one thing that kept spinning in my mind in the days that followed was how so much of what was shared was about the pressures we were experiencing in the roles we play in the lives of others, whether it be supportive wife, doting mother, adoring sister, or perfect daughter.
I noticed this trend as well when I was reading through all of the submissions for an anthology that I'm putting together. The anthology called for pieces of writing about a woman working to preserve an authentic version of herself despite the combatting pressures of society. No one wrote about the picture-perfect models in the media or the wage gap. Almost every single submission was about the self-inflicted pressure and the surrounding expectations to care for the people around them to the point of losing their personal identity.
Brett and I both work the same amount of hours in a week, work in the same workplace, and parent the same kid together and yet have had completely different experiences with pressures and the expectations. I feel guilty for going to work. He doesn't. When I don't feel guilty for going to work, I feel guilty for not feeling guilty. He still doesn't. I'm often asked by people who run into me at work, "Where's your baby?". Brett never gets asked. People ask me, at least once a week when baby #2 is coming. Brett's asked once and awhile and if he's already brought up the topic. These are little things, but they feel like heavy reminders that despite how much of myself I have given, there is more expected of me.
The differences in expectations are so strange to me. Phrases like "working mom" and "family man" are so common. But, not their opposites, "working dad" or "family woman". Why? Obviously, there are deep-rooted issues that these pressures stem from, but I wonder what my part is in all of this. Is there something I can change to make sure some of this pressure is alleviated from the women I interact with? Is there something I can say?
Then, I think back to Urban Circle. I think back to how we let each other talk. We let each other be angry. We let each other grieve. And we didn't say a word. We just held space.
Maybe my part in all of this is less about what I can say and more about what I can stop saying. There are a few things that I do avoid saying because of the lingering pressures they may leave. Though each of things are more often than not kind sentiments and curious questions, I feel that being careful with my words is a powerful move that I can make to make space for the women around me.
1) "Motherhood is the greatest job in the world."
By not saying “motherhood is the greatest job in the world” doesn’t mean I’m trying to make some kind of case against motherhood. Becoming a mother was the best thing that ever happened to me. My relationship with my kid is the most transformative and enriching experience I've ever had.
That's my experience. There's a difference between "Motherhood is the greatest job I've ever had." and "Motherhood is the greatest job in the world." One is a beautiful statement about your experience and another is a blanket statement that puts a whole lot of pressure on a whole lot of people. The sentence is usually said in a very innocent and passing way and it’s true that most people can take it for what the person means it to be. But, knowing how much pressure there is on all of us to be everything, I feel responsible to be more conscientious with my language. It may make me a stickler, but, hey, I’m a writer and I get caught up in wording.
- For starters, it excludes fathers and I love the progress that has been made towards placing equal value on both parents’ relationships. I really don’t want to say something that would diminish that.
- It is very shaming to women who can't or have decided not to have children. I know the extremely high value of mothers and that they do one of the hardest jobs out there. At the same time, I recognize that there are women who aren’t mothers and I don’t believe that means they are disqualified from experiencing the greatest job or that there’s something wrong with them for not wanting it.
- It applies a lot of pressure on women who want children, but aren't ready yet. Or, women who are trying to have children but are dealing with infertility.
- It implies that motherhood is the greatest and most enjoyable thing in the whole world which is pretty isolating to moms who are having a real hard go at it due to unforeseen circumstances like postpartum depression.
- It suggests that motherhood must always be treated as a vocation and could guilt moms who choose to or have to work away from the home. For example, though motherhood is the hardest work I have ever done, I personally don't relate to it as a job because my work is outside the home.
We each have a story and I want to make sure that when I describe my own I don’t make anyone feel like it has to be their story too. Despite the absolute magic that I have discovered being a mother, it devastates me that there is an expectation that all women should be mothers and if they are not, their value is somehow less or they need to be persuaded to make a different decision. In fact, it devastates me that there are expectations at all. Each of us have our own stories, hardships, abilities, and experiences and I want to respect that and make space for others with different stories from mine.
2) "When are you having a kid?/When are you having another?"
Emelyn is turning two in a month. You know what that means? A lot of people are asking me when I'm going to have another. To their credit, it is out curiosity and (with a few awful/hilarious exceptions) people ask kindly. But, I still think it's shocking how such a potentially heavy question is considered acceptable small talk.
"How've you been? Another kid on the way yet?" is actually very jarring for me to hear. Brett and I are pretty sure we want a second, but we're in no rush. I am trying to sort out issues with chronic pain and I had a very traumatic labour and birth. I'm equally enamoured with and exhausted by my almost-two year old business and kid and I'm about to treat writing as a career rather than a hobby for the first time. All those factors combined means we're content with not knowing when the next one will be. My reasons for not being ready yet aren't that heavy so I can laugh off the question and answer with a simple "I don't know". Though, being asked as often as I am does pressure me to feel ready faster and, in my current stage, I would rather be asked about my career than when I'm going to have another kid. (Half as much as Brett's asked would be nice.) The expectant excitement and labour that is going towards my career right now reminds me of how it felt when I was pregnant with my daughter. My growing career is something I’d like to talk about rather than feel like I should be directing my attention towards something else.
I can only imagine how incredibly hard handling this question would be if we were trying but were held up by infertility issues. Decisions and circumstances surrounding having a child are never simple. There are so many factors: personal desire, finances, living arrangements, physical health, fertility, mental health, career moves... Bringing it up in casual conversation categorizes it as a light subject. Especially, when the question is posed in an expectant way or if you're not even close to the person to begin with. I think it's a question that could be asked less to put more focus on what each of us are currently investing in and accomplishing and I believe it requires more sensitivity how and when it's asked.
3) "Why are you doing it like that?"
If a mom knows that bottle-feeding her baby is best for her and her family or hasn't been able to breastfeed and is restricted to that option, someone leaning over from the table next to them at a restaurant to let them know why "breast is best" is just not cool or helpful. (Also, like there could be breastmilk in that bottle. Either way, it's not their business. Plus, they have no idea how many hours that mother may have spent actually crying over milk. Rant over.)
What I'm trying to say is I want to empower the women around me in their choices and trust that they really do know what they are doing and why they are doing it. There are a lot of decisions surrounding parenthood. Each of these decisions can have your head spinning and your heart racing while you do hours of inconclusive Google searches and yet, we somehow feel we need to make it a bit more complicated by throwing free advice around. It seems like the advice rarely applies, as each person really does know their body, their circumstance, and their kid best. It actually mystified me how much I knew about my own kid right from the start. Mothers with more experience and parenting books couldn't trump my innate knowledge about what my kid needed.
Of course, there is a time and a place for advice! When we're sitting down with close friends and swapping stories, advice gets thrown around in a graceful and helpful manner. But, even then, I've become really intrigued with what happens when we stay quiet. When we don't offer a "Oh, I know what you should do!" or even a "Don't worry, it'll be okay soon!". When we sit and you listen. When we hold space.
All of us wrestle with unique stressors. We’re all doing our best. The added pressure to be mother of the year, employee of the year, and wife of the century all at once is strenuous, to the say the least. Especially if you don’t want to play one or more of those roles to begin with.
I’m the woman with one child who is really focused on her career. One thing I know I have in common with the woman beside me, whether she’s the woman who’s decided not to have kids or the woman with three kids, is the wrestling match with guilt. We both have the difficult job of sorting out our personal worth from the roles we play. Putting value on our personal needs as well as the needs of those around us. And we are both attempting the impossible task of spinning every plate perfectly. We're both feeling the pressure to be what everyone else needs even if the cost is greater than we can afford.
It reminds me of this line in Women Who Run With Wolves:
"The modern woman is a blur of activity. She is pressured to be all things to all people. The old knowing is long overdue."
While I don't know how to remove the pressure completely, I do know the way I initiate conversation or carry conversation with others can make a bit more breathing room for the woman next to me. And all of us could use a bit more breathing room.
Meghan Zahari is a donut shop owner by day and a writer by night. In between, she does photography and social media accounts for other businesses. Motherhood and emotions are a 24/7 gig. She lives with her husband, Brett, daughter, Emelyn, and cousin, Laura. (Plus, a pug and a puggle.) It’s a full life with a full house, so her introverted soul seeks refuge by hiding away with a book or watching Buffy or Grey’s.